The Great Imposter: Mythologizing Clean Labor, Practical Ethics, and Adorable Authenticity
“The divorce between art and the machine, Nature, aesthetic contemplation, leisure — these are the themes that, as we shall soon see, formed the bases of the myth of mechanization that colors all of our judgments.”
When Paul Valéry made the bold claim in 1930 that, “We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts,” he likely did not have marble wallpaper and AstroTurf in mind.
In an effort to appeal to modern consumers’ interest in ‘great innovations,’ nearly every new material imitation was originally advertised as a revolution in science and technology, with full bravado and unflinching earnestness. Plastics and rubbers, engineered to mimic more familiar materials such as ivory and marble, were plainly presented as the ‘next phase’ of human culture.
The mascots for these products were often the machinery used to produce them — cold, hard, and animated only by inhuman speeds of manufacturing. The visual disjunction between the processes and the products was stark, and the narratives provided by their manufacturers only widened this gap.
This was the standard, of course, before the baby boomer generation fell in love with the Nauga, a pudgy little animal discovered inhabiting the North East United States in 1966. Unlike any other mammal in existence, the Nauga regularly sheds its leather-yielding hide and grows a new one before anyone can see what lies beneath. Its discovery was a miracle for those opposed to the slaughtering of animals just as it was for those seeking affordable leather furniture.
But here’s the kicker: the Nauga was a total myth.
Uniroyal, a rubber manufacturer in Naugatuck, Connecticut, invented a synthetic leather called “Naugahyde” in 1936, an homage to its town of origin. Unlike the successive layering of a traditional leather hyde, Naugahyde was constructed with a knit fabric backing coated with polyvinyl chloride. Under pressure to separate itself from the countless imitators that followed, Uniroyal hired George Lois, self-described as “America’s master communicator,” to give their invention a backstory that no others could match. The company’s rebirth in the marketplace began with a single claim above the creature’s deviled horns: “The Nauga is ugly, but his vinyl hide is beautiful...” [Figure 1]
The giddy response to the Nauga’s 1967 appearance on The Johnny Carson Show made clear that the Nauga could capture the imagination of the American public just as fervently as the unicorn or the leprechaun in the post-industrial world. [Figure 2] As critic Brion Paul once joked, “The concept stuck like a sweaty leg to a Naugahyde couch.” Shoppers followed closely as the plot of the Nauga thickened over time in numerous magazine advertisements, leading to a dramatic increase in Naugahyde brand furniture sales in the late 1960’s. Writer Robert Kanigel summarized some of the “absurdist history” of the Nauga that had been advertised over the years:
“Naugas inhabit a Pacific atoll. They immigrate to Ellis Island, their line extending to that eminent robber baron, Cornelius VanderNauga, pictured on an overstuffed, presumably Naugahyde-upholstered chair in his Newport, Rhode Island, mansion.”
Its success was also likely due to two incentives offered by Uniroyal: that each piece would come with a stamp of authenticity in the shape of the Nauga, and that a free Nauga doll would be included with every purchase (“every hand-made doll comes with its own unique serial number and original adoption certificate to validate its authenticity”). Naugahyde and the Nauga have been mythically tied ever since.
How, of all possible strategies, did the election of a mascot revive Uniroyal? The answer requires a close look at several converging demographics, but it can be best explained by first describing some of the motives behind the inclusion of material imitation to mass production. In Mechanization Takes Command, Siegfried Giedion challenged the incongruity of animal products and assembly line logic in the late 19th century by asking, “How are the unpredictable contingencies that nature produces to be overcome by mechanical devices?”
Solutions to this dilemma are proposed throughout his book as crude patent drawings and unresolved diagrams. Of particular note is H.S. Lewis’ Skinning Cattle by Power (U.S. Patent 63,910) [Figure 3], which appears less like a thoughtful solution than a medieval torture device. The difficulty of cleanly separating hide from muscle is overlooked in this drawing in favor of a blind faith towards levers and pulleys. “To varying degrees, spinning and weaving, baking and milling had been satisfactorily mechanized,” Giedion writes, “[but] the skin of animals is too delicate to handle otherwise than by knife and hand.”
Even if the problem of mechanic handicraft could have somehow been overcome, the much greater obstacle is an ethical one. Many object to the use of animal products, and many more will consciously avoid seeing “how the sausage is made,” regardless of the scale of its production.
“Meat made us who we are,” Harold Mcgee once claimed, referring to the appropriation of animal products by our earliest ancestors. Animals’ meat provided protein for strenuous tasks, their oil light for dark nights, and their hides warmth for harsh winters. As more synthetic alternatives hit the market, animal products were seen by the baby boomer generation as luxuries rather than necessities.
Concerned with animal rights and the scarcity of natural resources, the youth of the 1960’s sparked a nationwide discussion. How could this demographic effectively “speak up on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves,” as Peter Singer demanded, without changing the material landscape beyond recognition? The fabled conventions of the Nauga were subtly yet meaningfully presented to the public as the perfect solution to the issues expressed by this ethically conscious generation: ”Once a year,” Uniroyal claimed in one of its later advertisements, “he sheds his hide for the good of mankind.” The Nauga is, above all and unlike its bovine alternatives, a creature that can survive the sacrifice of its resources. He gives up his hide as happily as a sheep gives up its wool.
Yet despite the growing popularity of the animal rights movement, a group of consumers, unphased by the lengths taken to yield animal products, maintained their skepticism of imitative materials. Modern design critic Anthony Bertram insisted that “to make plastic materials imitate woodwork is a definite dishonesty of design that cannot be too strongly condemned.” Bertram and like-minded consumers were comfortable instead with the long-standing narratives predating modernism that made links between authenticity and durability, traditional craftsmanship, and generally high performance. A 1963 advertisement from the Leather Industries of America perhaps spoke to this audience’s love of authenticity and fear of imitation best:
Naturally, you prefer leather. That’s why they are trying to imitate it. Consider the things you can count on in real leather shoes: their natural breathing and flexing action; their cooling absorption of normal foot moisture; their ability to hold their shape. Why accept imitations when leather shoes give your family the protection and deep down comfort they need. Naturally.”
The group of consumers that responded positively to this advertisement, for instance, proved to be interested in the ‘real thing’ at any cost. Any reference to the properties of an object as ‘plastic’ would be met with negative associations with cheapness and alienation. Widespread aversion to synthetic materials prolonged ‘natural’ material production throughout the 20th century, such as those for diamonds and hardwood flooring.
‘Fake’ leather was, of course, received unfavorably by this group when it was first introduced to the market in 1936. Yet when the myth of the Nauga propagated thirty years after this date, many of these same consumers grew comfortable over time with the concept of a leather hide derived from the uniquely charming creature. For them, the word ‘synthetic’ was not pitched to mean fake, but new.
The myth of the Nauga, championed by George Lois, has since become the unlikely middle ground for three disparate groups with three separate interests: exasperated craftsmen (labor), vegans (ethics), and users of animal products (authenticity). It is real for those that won't settle for the fake, and it is fake for those that won't settle for the real. The brilliance of the Nauga’s marketing lies in the uninterrupted appeal to these three seemingly contradictory demands.
And beyond providing an easy, ethical, alternatively-authentic substitute to genuine leather, it is also a more versatile form of leather than previously conceivable: A super leather! A leather more leather than leather... According to another advertisement for Naugahyde,
“Naugahyde can look, amazingly, like anything. Cow’s hide? Beautiful. Horse’s hide? Beautiful. Alligator? Beautiful. If you don’t want it leather-like, you can get Naugahyde that looks like linen. Wool. Silk. Tweed. Brocade. Burlap. Bamboo, for heaven’s sake. It fools all the people all the time. In 500 different colors and textures.”
No matter what amazing qualities synthetic leather boasts or conflicts it remedies, it will always be tied to the Nauga, ‘the great imposter.’ The leather of real animals pale in comparison when one considers their limited capabilities and relative scarcity. More generally, the myth of the Nauga allowed consumers to grow comfortable with a new materialist future, in which people from all demographics could more than proudly agree that their objects are synthetically produced, coming from animals newly ‘discovered.’
As originals and their simulations maintain comparable levels of production in the marketplace, our perception of both is brought into question. Naugahyde would have no agency without several divided opinions about its predecessor, and it would especially have no value. Conversely, authentic leather would have no meaningful claims to authenticity or illusions of monopolism without its synthetic substitute. Each one complicates and gives shape to the other.
Together, they confirm the modern function of mythology as described by Roland Barthes in his 1957 book, Mythologies. In it, Barthes revealed that much of what defines the modern built environment communicates under false pretenses in an effort to become more palatable to its witnesses. He claimed:
“Mythical speech is made of a material which has already been worked on so as to make it suitable for communication: it is because all the materials of myth (whether pictorial or written) presuppose a signifying consciousness that one can reason about them while discounting their substance.”
The myth of the Nauga effectively united craftsmen, materialists, and ethicists by first responding to their concerns with one simple narrative. Ultimately and thereafter, it was the Nauga’s charming, toothy smile that led to the indoctrination of a whole new material palette.
Barthes’ mythology and the Nauga are the unusual consequences of one of the last century’s greatest contradictions: we are attracted to the promises of technology, yet we are also too culturally enchanted by oak and marble to officially put them behind us. With one foot in the future and the other in the past, the 20th century was irreversibly shaped by nostalgic positivism. Instead of championing new forms and materialities, we use advancing technologies to hold onto the semblance of the old so dearly. The Nauga is one of the few myths created to resolve the complications of that consumerist struggle, as are a range of products created in a nod to its genius of compromise, from Tofurky to Fakin’ Bacon. [Figure 4]
Concerning the lasting success of the modern myth, Barthes wrote, “its signifier has two sides for it always to have an “elsewhere” at its disposal. The meaning is always there to present the form; the form is always there to outdistance the meaning.”
In the end, the practice of modern mythology teaches us something unexpected: authentic leather is shrouded in just as much mythology as Naugahyde. It, too, conceals the less attractive elements of its production methods for the benefit of its customers. Most leather products abstract their geometry away from the familiar curves and body parts of cows, and even fewer designate the image of a cow as their emblem. The words “authentic leather” are often boldly imprinted into their thick hides, yet they quickly reveal themselves to be misleading: any description of the material’s origins before it touched the hands of the craftsman is distinctly absent. The image of a craftsman, taking his time with the material in some forested cabin, is an illusory mascot for authentic leather as well: the majority of leather produced goods today are manufactured in factory and assembly line settings. “In 2015,” APLF recently reported, “China manufactured 4.56 billion pairs of leather shoes and exported 840 million pairs.”
Authentic leather’s form, as Barthes might say, strives to outdistance its meaning. Its operations have proven to be just as susceptible to the modern, unromantic demands of speed and efficiency as its synthetic substitute. Authentic leather, without an ideal cow or craftsman mascot of its own, has chosen to maneuver under the thin guise of an empty mythology, preferring its consumers ask few questions.
The production of Naugahyde continues to run parallel to that of the leather industry. The fruits of their labor have each been incorporated into our vocabulary with equal measure. An awareness of the modern material myths at play in the built environment could lead consumers from all backgrounds, therefore, to sift through the various marketing strategies on either side and determine for themselves the value and consequences of the desire for authenticity. What can be said of their sensibilities when more companies start to discover Naugas of their own?